Linus: Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about...
While Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol predated it by three years, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by one, it was really A Charlie Brown Christmas that made TV Christmas specials a thing in the entire Western world. The first of the animated prime-time specials based on Charles M. Schulz's classic comic strip Peanuts, made on the cheap-and-quick by producer Lee Mendelson for CBS in 1965,note A Charlie Brown Christmas has nevertheless gone on to become one of the most iconic Christmas works of all time. It is also one of the most successful of all time, enjoying a prominent place in pop culture from its debut to the present day. In fact, if you're from a Christmas-celebrating household, chances are you have already watched this special more times than you can count, and we don't have to remind you about the plot. But, just on the off chance that you haven't seen it...
Butt-Monkey protagonist Charlie Brown is having a rather cheerless holiday season. He's received no Christmas cards, and he feels no particular seasonal joy. Lucy manages to rope him into directing the school Christmas pageant, but after his first attempt falls flat, she gives him a new assignment: to pick the show's Christmas tree. She wants something aluminum and painted pink, but instead he brings back a twiggy sapling that's too tiny to even support the weight of a single ornament — though it is a real tree — and returns to mockery and scorn. Despairing, he asks aloud whether Christmas has any deeper meaning at all. By way of answer, Linus recites the Nativity story from Luke 2 and seemingly reminds everyone that the humble things are what should matter. With "a little love", Charlie Brown's sad little tree becomes transfigured, and his spirits are restored.
And yet... there's a reason this 26-minute cartoon aired on network TV each and every December for 50+ years, originally on CBS and then on ABC. For whatever reason, the special just clicked with audiences in a way nothing else had before, and very few Christmas works have since. The special's perennial appeal is so strong that when ABC started editing it for time in order to accommodate more commercials, fans raised such a stink that the network agreed to broadcast it uncut in an hour-long timeslot with a new segment, Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales, being commissioned to fill out the remaining time.note In 2020 it appeared that such concern for accommodating commercials would no longer be relevant, as it was announced the special would be available for streaming on Apple TV+ along with other animated adaptations of the Peanuts franchise. It was later announced that PBS as well as the 24/7 PBS Kids channel would be airing the special as part of a last-minute deal between Apple and PBS. The special aired again on PBS in 2021, but will not do so in 2022.
This humble television special that no one had any faith in CBS was fully-prepared to disown it and only aired it out of legal obligation went on to win an Emmy Award and ended up turning Peanuts into a multimedia juggernaut.note Over the next four decades, Peanuts would get several dozen more specials, a Saturday Morning Cartoon that ran for two seasons, four theatrical films,note and two Broadway musicals.note It effectively is the gold standard for all subsequent Christmas specials in any medium, and it single-handedly exterminated both the use of a Laugh Track in animated comedy and the popularity of tacky painted metal Christmas trees. In 2015, ABC aired a two-hour special called It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, which focuses on the enduring popularity of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Directly followed by Charlie Brown's All-Stars in 1966, but seasonally, the 1985 series finale of The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show next featured the Peanuts gang in a Christmas context, finally letting us see them actually perform a Christmas play! Further Christmas specials included It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown in 1992, followed by two specials on ABC, namely Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales and 2003's I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown. All of the follow-up specials were heavily adapted from existing Peanuts strips. Despite Christmas Tales being made specifically to help fill a one hour timeslot with the unedited Charlie Brown Christmas, the original is usually paired with It's Christmastime Again... on DVD.
A Charlie Brown Christmas contains examples of:
- Achievements in Ignorance: Charlie Brown lampshades the absurdity of Pig-Pen's filthiness being fully active in a snowy environment.Charlie Brown: Pig-Pen, you're the only person I know who can raise a cloud of dust in a snowstorm.
- Absurd Phobia: Lucy in her psychiatrist booth tries to diagnose Charlie Brown's depression, and wonders if it might be a phobia of something like cats, staircases, or crossing bridges. Eventually, they settle on pantophobia: the fear of everything.
- An Aesop:
- Don't let the commercialization of Christmas discourage you from why you celebrate it.
- You'll never see the potential of the people (or trees) you dismiss for superficial reasons.
- Christmas is about the people who care about you enough to make you happy.
- Appeal to Force: Lucy has a memorable one;Linus: Give me one good reason I should memorize this.
Lucy: I'll give you five good reasons. (holds up palm, starts curling in fingers) One, two, three, four, five! (holds fist under Linus' nose)
Linus: ...those are good reasons. Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous!
- Ass in a Lion Skin: Snoopy is tapped to perform the parts of all the animals in the Christmas play, including a sheep, a cow, and a penguin. (He gratuitously adds a vulture and, yes, a lion.)
- As the Good Book Says...: Linus' short sermon is a direct quote from Luke 2:8-14.note
- Audible Gleam: A variation, as Charlie's tree loses pine needles to the sound of tinkling piano keys.
- Beautiful All Along: The tree.
- Bootstrapped Theme: The song from the dance sequence, titled "Linus and Lucy", is often considered to be Peanuts' official theme song. Not surprising, since "Linus & Lucy" is played during almost every Charlie Brown special.
- Poor Charlie Brown sees no joy in a commercialized Christmas and gets belittled and ignored by everyone around him.
- Also, Shermy. You know, the guy who gets one line... and it's to complain that every Christmas he always plays the shepherd.
- The Cameo: 5 appears as one of the dancers. Also, his sisters, 3 and 4, are those twin girls in purple dresses.
- Chekhov's Gun: Snoopy's Christmas lights (which he puts on his dog house for the big neighborhood Christmas light display contest... which he wins). Said lights, a symbol of "commercialization", ironically become the trimmings that give Charlie Brown's tree new life!
- Christmas Carolers: This show ends with the gang outside standing around a Christmas tree and singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". The kids start with an impromptu "ooooooooo" version after the tree's transformation, followed by the real thing when Charlie Brown shows up.
- Conspicuous Consumption: Commercialism is portrayed as the antithesis of the True Meaning of Christmas.
- Copycat Mockery: Snoopy ridicules Lucy's bossiness by imitating her gestures and mouthing her lines, much to her annoyance.
- Crappy Holidays: Possibly one of the first examples. Before the True Meaning of Christmas snaps everyone out of it, Charlie Brown spends most of the special depressed, none of the kids seem to get along, and by the end of the ordeal with the Christmas tree, everyone's in a bad mood.
- Demoted to Extra: Shermy, a major character in the early days of the newspaper strip, has just one line in the entire special ("Every Christmas it's the same; I always end up playing a shepherd"), reflecting the increasing rarity of Schulz's use of him. He made his last appearance in the strip four years later.
- Department of Redundancy Department: "Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest."
- Despair Event Horizon: "I killed it."
- Downer Beginning: The special starts when Charlie Brown goes to the skating pond feeling depressed and ends up thrown against a tree by Snoopy. The title credits appear over his snow-covered form (all the snow on the tree's branches shook loose and and buried him).
- Dramatic Spotlight: Linus asks for one of these for his True Meaning of Christmas speech (seen in the page image for the latter).
- Early Adaptation Weirdness: Peppermint Patty (who debuted in 1966) and Woodstock (not really a regular until 1967, and not named until 1970) weren't in the Peanuts ensemble yet, so they're not here. Meanwhile Violet, regular Patty and Shermy, all of whom would eventually get Demoted to Extra (or worse), are prominently featured.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: Lucy actually gives good advice to Charlie Brown that if the holidays are depressing him, he should find a way to make himself happy. She recommends him as a director for the Christmas play with sincerity and serves as his co-director to get the kids in line. Later comic strips and specials would show that Lucy's psychiatrist's advice was useless and Charlie Brown exists as her punching bag.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: After spending the whole special in a depression, Charlie Brown is inspired by Linus' speak that he shouldn't let it bother him anymore, and his brief Heroic BSoD is solved when the other kids fix the tree for him.
- Enemy to All Living Things: Charlie Brown thinks he's this with regard to his tree.Charlie Brown: I've killed it! AAUGH!! Everything I touch gets ruined!
- Everybody Do the Endless Loop: The "dancing" scene, which is also one of the most-parodied and iconic sequences from the special.
- Exposed to the Elements: The girls don't wear any pants or leggings under their winter coats. The boys do wear long pants instead of their usual shorts, however.
- Extra-Long Episode: This and other Peanuts specials originally ran in a standard 30-minute time slot including commercials, then got bits chopped out of them in order to accommodate more advertising. In more recent years up to 2020 they ran in hour long blocks so that the original can run in its entirety in 32-35 minutes, followed by Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales, a collection of Peanuts Christmas shorts (which itself was sometimes cut down) to fill the hour. In 2020, the special moved to Apple TV+, a streaming service outside of scheduling conventions, with an auxiliary broadcast on PBS, where it comfortably fits the non-commercial half-hour timeslot.
- Eyebrow Waggle: Linus gives one upon telling Lucy about turning his blanket into a sport coat.
- Failures on Ice: This happens to Charlie Brown when Snoopy throws him against a tree, and then to Linus when Snoopy grabs his blanket, tossing him into a billboard.
- Filler: ABC's televising strategy was to combine this with Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales to fill an hour.
- Full-Name Basis: Briefly subverted. When Lucy tells Charlie Brown that Christmas is really a racket run by an Eastern syndicate, she starts by saying, "Look, Charlie..." This is the only time she ever calls him by just his first name.
- George Lucas Altered Version: The version originally broadcast in 1965 has never aired again nor been made available commercially. All currently circulating versions are based on a re-edit that Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson did in 1966, which made a bunch of changes: some new animation and dialogue, scenes either cut or extended, and, most significantly, four Vince Guaraldi pieces added to the score (either borrowed from the 1964 A Boy Named Charlie Brown documentary soundtrack or taken from the score of the upcoming Charlie Brown's All-Stars).
- Hear Me the Money: Lucy loves to hear that old money plink, that beautiful sound of cold hard cash, that beautiful beautiful sound of nickels, nickels, nickels!
- Heroic BSoD: "...I killed it."
- Hidden Depths: Charlie Brown an eight-year-old boy knows the basics of theatre direction and is determined to get it right. One suspects hell do a pretty decent job... if the other kids will listen to him.
- Insult Backfire: Frieda attempting to lay the law down with Pig-Pen doesn't go how she anticipated.Frieda: You're an absolute mess. Just look at yourself!
Pig-Pen: (looks into mirror) ...On the contrary, I didn't think I'd look that good.
- Internal Homage: A December 1966 Peanuts strip directly referenced the climax of this special. Linus reads the same Luke verses, only this time using the Revised Standard translation rather than the King James, followed by Linus saying "Like I've said before, that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!"
- Invisible Backup Band: Sometimes, drums and cymbals can be heard accompanying Schroeder, despite the fact that no one is seen playing them.
- Invisible Parents: To the point where even the school pageant appears to be organized entirely by the kids themselves with no adult involvement.
- Jerkass: Some of the characters are nicer (Lucy is notably kinder than her usual characterization), but with exception to Linus, Sally, and Pig-Pen, everyone handles the Jerkass Ball, especially Lucy, Violet, and Patty, who pull no punches in berating Charlie Brown for the tree he brings back. They at least sing with him at the end.
- Jerkass Realization: Those who laughed at Charlie Brown's tree, Lucy especially, all have a change of heart following Linus' heartfelt speech.Lucy: Charlie Brown is a blockhead... but he did get a nice tree.
- Jingle the Coins:Lucy: Boy, what a sound! I love hearing that old money clink! That wonderful sound of cold hard cash. That beautiful sound! Nickels, nickels, nickels. That beautiful sound of plinking nickels!
- Kicked Upstairs: It's implied that Charlie Brown is appointed to direct the Christmas pageant because no one trusts him in any meaningful role.
- Laugh Track: Averted to the point of being Defied. Charles Schulz was stupefied when producers suggested a laugh track for the cartoon, and flatly refused to include one.
- Limited Animation: Well, what would you expect from a Dark Age cartoon with a six-month production schedule?
- Long Speech Tea Time:
- Charlie Brown's long speech to his actors finishes up by revealing that everyone's gone off to dance on the stage again.Charlie Brown: Am I right? I said, "AM I RIGHT?!"
- Amusingly enough, the music picks up right after he explains his signal for "Pick up the tempo." The key to comedy is timing.
- The strip that this scene is based on is actually Charlie Brown attempting to discuss his new baseball signals to his team on a rainy day at his house. But after he says, "I said, 'Am I right?'", he sees that the other teammates are watching television.
- Charlie Brown's long speech to his actors finishes up by revealing that everyone's gone off to dance on the stage again.
- Ludicrous Gift Request:
- When forcing Charlie Brown to write her letter to Santa for her, Sally says that if her list "seems too complicated", then Santa should "make it easy on [him]self" by sending money; suggesting "tens and twenties". (And while you think about that, consider this: this was in The '60s! — in early-21st century terms, it would be roughly equivalent to asking for "fifties and hundreds".)Charlie Brown: Tens and twenties?! Oh, even my baby sister!
- In an earlier scene, Lucy claims that all she wants for Christmas is "real estate".
- When forcing Charlie Brown to write her letter to Santa for her, Sally says that if her list "seems too complicated", then Santa should "make it easy on [him]self" by sending money; suggesting "tens and twenties". (And while you think about that, consider this: this was in The '60s! — in early-21st century terms, it would be roughly equivalent to asking for "fifties and hundreds".)
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Christmas time is here... Happiness and cheer..." And yet the song, like "White Christmas", sounds noticeably wistful. It might be meant to symbolize Charlie Brown's inner depression and how the Christmas spirit seems shallow to him. In particular, notice how the word "cheer" is underscored by the chords shifting downward from a C to an A minor 7th.
- The Makeover: To a tree instead of a human, though. Oddly, adding all those ornaments onto it somehow makes it grow extra branches and foliage.
- Mood Whiplash:
- The scene goes from Charlie Brown being mocked, berated, and jeered, and without even pausing to take a breath dives into Linus reciting a verse from The Bible that shames everyone there into realizing the True Meaning of Christmas.
- The song being played during the Ice Skating Sequence, "Christmas Time Is Here". The lyrics suggest something cheery while the overall tone in the singing and piano playing is very depressing.
- Mythology Gag: Snoopy really loves to pretend he's a vulture.
- Never Trust a Trailer: This promo incorporates a scene from the untelevised documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown (not to be confused with the 1969 feature film of the same name) without identifying it as such.
- No Antagonist: There's not really a "bad guy" in the setting. Lucy's the closest because of her trying to force her desired acting role on Charlie Brown, but that's about it. They're still trying to do the best they can to put on a good show.
- Off-Model: This special was produced cheaply and quickly; the animation suffered as a result. Look for things like, say, the kids in the background suddenly popping in front of the front row for one frame while taking a breath while singing, or the arrangement of words on Lucy's booth changing twice in the course of a minute. Schulz himself often pointed out how the Pathetic Christmas Tree inexplicably grew a few branches over the course of its time on screen.
- Only Friend: Linus, Pig-Pen, and Sally are the only kids at the auditorium who don't laugh at Charlie Brown and his tree.
- Only Sane Man: Linus when viewing Christmas trees with Charlie Brown grabs the Smart Ball. He tells Charlie Brown that the tree doesn't have to be perfect but it should at least be presentable, and protests Charlie Brown getting a sickly, little one. Yet when the other kids laugh, Linus goes onstage and recites the True Meaning of Christmas to cheer up his best friend.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Linus normally suffers a breakdown when separated from his Security Blanket. Here, he selflessly uses it to stabilize Charlie Brown's tree because it needs a "little love" in his words. He also drops the blanket when he gets to "fear not," during his Rousing Speech.
- Over-the-Top Christmas Decorations: Snoopy gives his doghouse the decorative overkill treatment and wins 1st prize in the local newspaper's Christmas decoration contest.Charlie Brown: Oh, well. This commercial dog is not going to ruin my Christmas.
- The Power of Love: What makes the tree beautiful at the end, if what Linus says is true. To accentuate the point, he stabilizes it with his beloved blanket.
- Product Displacement:
- Originally, after the title card appeared, Snoopy tossed Linus at a billboard for Coca-Cola (the special's original sponsor). Modern broadcasts cut to commercial after the title card instead, while home video releases fade to black. However, an original colour print was discovered and posted to YouTube in 2018.
- The original airing also contained a sponsor tag at the end for Coca-Cola, which explains why later airings have the chorus of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" over the closing credits fading out early. An alternate version from 1968 has also been discovered.
- In ironic contrast to the aforementioned product placement of early airings, Charlie Brown objects to Sally's and Snoopy's misguided holiday priorities, as well as commercialization in general.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Charlie Brown, as director of the Christmas play, tries to be this but it's quickly made apparent that he has absolutely no control over anything. Lucy then says she'll get the kids in line while he goes Christmas tree shopping to help him out.
- Safe Under Blankets: When Charlie Brown announces that Sally will be playing Linus' wife in the Christmas pageant, Linus immediately throws his blanket over his head when Sally gets too close.
- Sarcasm-Blind:Charlie Brown: Thanks for the Christmas card you sent me, Violet.
Violet: I didn't send you a Christmas card, Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown: Don't you know sarcasm when you hear it?
- Security Blanket: Obviously, Linus, who is never without his, except when reciting the Bible verse. He drops it when he gets to the part when the angel tells the shepherds to not be afraid.
- School Play: The gang rehearses for a Christmas pageant, though in typical Peanuts fashion it's unspecified whether any adults are involved in the production.
- The Speechless: Snoopy may be a dog who can't talk, but he seems to be treated as good as a human by the rest of the cast. Especially here.
- Sugar-and-Ice Personality: In contrast to her usual portrayal, Lucy is surprisingly kind to Charlie Brown for much of the special, offering to help him out even if she doesn't see eye-to-eye with him. She counteracts this with traces of her usual crabbiness, though.
- Surprisingly Happy Ending: When Charlie Brown thinks he "killed" the tree after placing just one ornament on it, the rest of the kids fix it to surprise him and they all sing together, bringing the special to a wonderful finish.
- The Syndicate: Mentioned by Lucy. This could also have been a sly reference to United Feature Syndicate, which distributed Peanuts to newspapers (and owned its copyright until recently).Lucy: Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.
- "Take That!" Kiss: After Lucy turns around and catches Snoopy imitating her:Lucy: I oughta slug you. (Slurp) UGH! I've been kissed by a dog! I have dog germs! Get some hot water, get some disinfectant, get some iodine!
- That Russian Squat Dance: Snoopy briefly does this during Schroeder's jazz solo.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: The kids show Charlie Brown they appreciate his tree, and wish him a Merry Christmas. He happily joins in their verse of "Hark Herald Angels Sing".
- True Meaning of Christmas: Charlie Brown longs to find this, and Linus ultimately delivers it courtesy of the Gospel of Luke. It also seems to be that You Are Not Alone.
- Unbuilt Trope: A lot of tropes common to Christmas specials are played a little differently here, despite the fact that this special made most of them.
- Christmas as a time of gift-giving: This special focuses on how the message of Christmas has been lost by its commercialization and promise of presents. Instead, the special says the purpose of Christmas is kindness for everyone, and conspicuous consumption around the holidays cheapens that purpose.
- A character learns the True Meaning of Christmas: it's not the protagonist who learns it, but everyone else. Also, rather than a secular message about kindness using Santa Claus, the Aesop delivered explicitly uses Biblical and Christian themes.
- The Christmas tree as a symbol of Christmas: There is one, but it's tiny. So tiny it can't even support the weight of one bulb. The message is that True Beauty Is on the Inside.
- Holiday depression: The title character isn't sad because it's Christmas; he's sad because nothing ever seems to go right for him.
- When He Smiles: After all he went through in the special, seeing Charlie Brown smiling is so special.
- You Are Not Alone: How the special ends. Charlie Brown worries that he's ruined the play and the tree. Linus then uses his blanket to stabilize the tree, and everyone, Snoopy included, uses the doghouse decorations to decorate it. They then wish a Merry Christmas to Charlie Brown and all begin singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing". He then joins in, having found that the meaning of Christmas is people who care about you.